Some of the recommendations of the recently published Congressional Report into the Reserves and National Guard seem ill-advised and counter-productive. Targeting the Department of Defense’s reported upon lack of ability to respond to nuclear, biological and chemical threats, one conclusion drawn is that the non-active elements should be refocused exclusively on domestic disasters. The other, objectionable conclusion worthy of mention here is that the Report appears to recommend reducing the pay of National Guard and Reserve troops by half.

There will never, anywhere, be a report written that says a country or city is completely ready to deal with the NBC threat. While we’re at it, let’s start by using the correct terminology, something both reporters and politicians seem to fail to do – misunderstanding the threat can only lead to bad assessments and solutions. The arena we are talking about is CBRN; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear, the distinction being that radiological is conventional munitions with radiological debris (dirty bombs), as opposed to nuclear devices. There are too many threat types, too many methods of dispersal, too many variables, and anyone can create a far-fetched but possible scenario and say, “Well, that would be ineptly dealt with, we are not ready.” (For details on how I reach this conclusion, see my discussion of isomorphism in a previous posting about Business Continuity in Kenya, which is equally applicable to Chad and the coming elections in Pakistan).

However, this person – who is often sitting at a desk in an office, probably in Washington, and most likely serving his Congressman’s agenda – does not exactly serve an independent auditor, now do they? That person probably doesn’t realize that while equipment and training are important elements of preparation, the military must engage in risk management just like any other organization to determine where the resources must be spent, how to use the time of their employees, what the threat is and how to cope. The military is involved in these issues not simply because they are a repository for government funds and political agendas; their true value is not in their NBC training, nor in their equipment. Their value is in their ability to make decisions and to allocate significant resources to a problem in order to resolve it efficiently, effectively, with speed and determination. The bottom line is that, whether you like it or not, while the military has its own problems, it comes with no jurisdictional agenda; it simply wants to get in, get the job done, and go home.

If you accept this premise that the military’s value is in its decision-making and ability to commit resources accordingly, suddenly the Congressional Report’s naivety is exposed, or should I say further exposed, for what it is. Training for just one scenario, just one role, is nonsense. It is a waste of a valuable resource, and a criminal waste at that – if I misspent resources in such a way on a Government contract, the IG would be carving the Densus Group apart with a big knife and a smile. I realise that focusing the Guard on domestic roles may be politically popular, but it is likely to be massively counter-productive measure for recruitment. To paraphrase, “It’s about serving the country, dummy.” People don’t join the Guard to be limited to disaster relief.

To draw a parallel – in the UK, members of the Territorial Army, the equivalent of the Reserves and the Guard combined that answers directly to the MoD and national politicians, have dual roles. They may be deployed at home or abroad, but have received some specialist training in domestic disaster response. They are not over-trained in this area, because they are expected to deal with the problem they face. For instance, no one expected the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2002, yet after the failure of the responsible agency to address the problem, it was a Regional Brigade HQ and predominantly territorial units that rose to the challenge. Nay-sayers will question how that relates to a CBRN threat, but that is the point: a problem is a problem, and this problem immobilised a country, potentially crippling it economically. A dirty bomb creates greater loss of life, but is geographically contained and in many ways easier to deal with. A more local equivalent is Katrina; the units responding had little disaster response training, yet managed just fine. To identify units as specialists and confine them to that role is both naïve and counter-productive. In the event of an domestic emergency they will draw on their operational experience in reacting to the situation and solving it; remove the experience, remove the ability to react.

To reduce any organisation to lower rates of pay is insulting, particularly that of the National Guard. A cautionary tale is that of the military in the UK (I realise there are a lot of analogies from the UK in this blog, but this is the richest seam of analogies today). The new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has always been negative about the military and other uniformed symbols of government, such as the prison service. In his 11 years in office as the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Secretary of the Treasury and Appropriations Committees rolled into one), he never once visited the spender of the largest amounts on single projects. Now that he is Prime Minister, and appointed a Secretary of Defence who has not one job but two, the military recognise that they are being significantly undervalued, and leaving in droves. If Congress were to suddenly cut pay and responsibilities for the Guard and Reserves, would that not be a similar signal?

The National Guard, the Reserves and the Active Duty military are all valuable components of the United States’ ability to respond to crisis – anywhere, anytime. Placing unnecessary restrictions around that demeans them, the contributions they have made and the potential contributions to make in the future. The Congressional Report recommendations sound like politicking of the highest order, and must be condemned as such. Reducing the military’s ability to respond across a spectrum of threats only reduces the ability to react, it does not, and cannot, improve it.”